Impossible to Grade?
Impossible to Grade?

This page is intended to illustrate why grading ancient coins is not a subject to be taken lightly. In fact, I see considerable wisdom in a line I once read to the effect that there are two grades to consider: "Coins I Like" and "Coins I Don't Like". Unwilling to take the smart and easy road here, we will examine several coins that are to some degree the same type (undoubtedly this grading page will double as an overview of the type and its varieties) to see if we can develop a way of comparing coins fairly taking into account more different factors than usually encountered in standard grading systems.

Our coins are bronze dupondii of the Roman provincial city of Nemausus (Nimes) in France. Founded as a retirement site for army veterans, Nemausus chose a type to honor veterans of the war against Mark Antony and Cleopatra ending with the battle of Actium in 31 BC. The obverse shows back to back portraits of Caesar Augustus (on the right) and his general Marcus Agrippa (left). The reverse shows a crocodile (personifying Egypt) chained to a palm tree. Scholarship is not certain of the dates of these issues but the type is generally assigned to at least 20 BC to 14 AD. We recognize serveral changes in minor details that separate the first from the last but this page will not try to argue any specific dates for each coin. Our main interest is grading the "Impossible to Grade". As we go through the discussion I will add (+1) or subtract (-1) 'points' as we go just to see if the final talley agrees with my rankings.

Below we will discuss several characteristics of these coins and observe how each compares to each of the others.

Our first example is the earliest of the set showing a higher weight standard and bare head on Augustus. Despite being somewhat eroded from spending some time in water it weighs more than any of the others at 14.8g. The coin is somewhat worn but well centered. Its worst property is the eroded details on the reverse. (-1) The second coin is later with a laurel wreath on Augustus and considerably more 'beefy' crocodile(+1) . It has a nice green patina (+4) but weak to missing legends (-2) and a severe gash on the reverse(-8) . The later design is harder to fit on a small flan. In addition to the gash, the coin is missing the reverse legends and most reverse details except for a good, bold crocodile eye. It comes close to being a one sided coin. Introduction Coin three would be a rather nice specimen but it shows many scratches (-5) remaining from the flan being filed before striking. These marks are common on these coins and were part of the minting process so some collectors claim they are not faults. The fact remains that a coin with so many of these non-faults still sells for less than a coin that was struck hard enough to erase the 'problem'. Our fourth specimen is the latest in date showing P P (Pater Patria) on the obverse under the chins. Since Augustus first assumed this honor in 2 BC, it is likely that our coin was struck in the AD period. The coin is well worn (-1) and unevenly struck (-2) but has a decent, smooth slate green patina (+5) . Of the four, this is the lowest grade considering wear but has the best surfaces and centering. Is it the best or the worst?
Agrippa's portrait is clear and well detailed (+1) but has the less 'artistic' early style that some consider a bit crude(-1) . The rostral crown is present but not particularly detailed. Here Agrippa wears an exceptionally bold rostral crown that really does look like the prow of a ship(+2) . Since his claim to fame was a naval battle, it seems appropriate to have a coin that hows the rostrum to advantage. Agrippa portrait I'd call this an exceptionally fine portrait (+3) except for the fact that the centering to the left side clips off the rostrum (-3) . If I liked the detail of coin #2, I must come down hard on this one due to the poor centering. I love the style and stern expression. (+1) Coin four was struck weakly on Agrippa's side and never had good detail on his portrait (-2) . Adding wear, we are left with an outline where we would prefer much more detail.
Augustus' portrait matches that of Agrippa with unexceptional style and considerable wear. (0) Again, the two portraits seem to match well even though they are not exceptional for the type. (0) Augustus portrait Here the Augustus suffers more from the scratches than other parts of the coin. (-1) The style, like that of Agrippa, is a bit out of the ordinary and harsh not really looking like a standard face of Augustus. (-1) Augustus on coin #4 is much stronger than Agrippa due to the uneven strike. (+2) It is a bit crowded by the centering which clips the right but remains a high point of this particular coin.
Ordinary but weak at bottom(-1) Ordinary but weak at bottom(-1) Obverse legends Ordinary but weak at bottom(-1) Bold for this coin(+1)
Weak (-1) Gone(-2) Reverse legends Decent but slightly clipped at right (+1) Bold left; missing right (-1)
The crocodile is nicely outlined and on the flan (+1) but the erosion has eaten away most details leaving the reverse the weak side of the coin. (-3) To find something nice to say about this coin you have to work. (-3) The crocodile eye is more bold than most of the coins of this type (+1) but, overall, the reverse is a lost cause. Reverse details Coin #3 has much good detail on the crocodile (+5) and has as bold a chain (+2) as you are likely to see on one of these coins. Were it not for the small flan and scratches across the neck of the crocodile, I'd call this a gem. Coin #4 suffers from the weak strike being weaker on the wrong side (-1) . Given the choice, I'd prefer better detail on the head of the crocodile but, at least, the jaws and teeth are present. (+1)
Medium / Low (-1) Medium high / Low (0) Eye appeal High / High (+4) Uneven / Uneven (-1)
aF (7) aVF / VG (7) Wear based grade VF (10) aF (7)
3 (0) I've owned it a long time! 4 (0) I'm not sure I should have bought it. Rank by my standards
(Do you agree?)
1 (15) I'm really happy to have it. 2 (8) I'm pretty happy to have it.

The question is how you can describe any of these coins with a couple letters and hope to convey hat the coin looks like. These four are coins from my collection; there are many better and worse examples on the market. On top of this there is another situation with this issue that I find interesting. We modern day collectors call these coins dupondii whether or not the citizens of the provincial city would have equated the coins with the Roman denomination of two asses that carries that name. Nemausus did not strike coins of a 1/2 value. Instead they cut these in half (almost always between the two portraits) making two asses for the needs of commece. Certainly some collectors avoid these as 'damaged' coins but they are what they are and the way the economy of the day chose to deal with the need for a smaller denomination. The coins were not always struck with the same die axis orientation so it is possible to get either ruler backed by either the head or the tail of the crocodile. There are even coins with intermediate axes so you can find one with either ruler and the entire or not a bit of the crocodile. How should one grade these asses of convenience? How should they be valued compared to whole coins? This page was not intended to give answers but to suggest you think about what you want before buying a coin. I have my answers which will differ from those of many who read these words. In addition, I was trying to assemble a set of the minor variations and probably paid more for the last variation I needed than I might have for just an upgrade for one of the others. Now that I have what I consider a set, it will require a coin be more special to me before it qualifies as an addition to my group. The club of "Coins I Like" changes on a regular basis for a collector like me in any event and buying yet another 'duplicate' certainly makes the game harder on other coins of the type. Dealers will see this differently since they do not have to like a coin but just find one buyer who does.

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(c) 2013 Doug Smith